The new Clio 197’s spec sheet tells two different stories. On the one hand it reveals that the latest hot Clio is more powerful, more tightly controlled, more technically advanced and simply faster than ever before, but the purist might also point out that it’s also substantially bigger and a whole 130kg heavier than its predecessor. And as anybody (even off-guard Renaultsport engineers) will tell you, weight in a hot hatch is the enemy. So which is it? Brilliantly accomplished hot-hatch hero, or slow-witted fat kid in Nike Air 360s? After two days’ driving on the roads of northern Portugal, I think I can safely rule out the latter. In fact, ‘accomplished’ is perhaps the best word to describe the 197. It has grip in abundance, brilliant brakes and an engine that loves to rev. Point-to-point it’d take a very talented driver in a 182 to stick to the 197’s rear diffuser when the going gets bumpy and twisty. As a technical exercise then, the 197 is an unmitigated success. Of course, as with any performance car, that’s only half the story. It’s all very well being wowed by cornering speeds, but the novelty wears off unless there’s a bit more depth. A hot hatch should be physically involving, demand that you roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. And if they beat you up a bit, well that’s just part of the fun. It’s this intensity that made the Clio 182, in Cup and Trophy guises in particular, such a blast to drive. More recently, Renaultsport has introduced this ‘hardcore’ edge to the Mégane, too. It’s become a sort of fast-Renault trademark: manic enough to feel special at any speed, but controlled enough to remain composed even at the absolute limit. Quite a balancing act… The 197 certainly looks the part: somehow on its toes but also hunkered down to the road, wide-tracked, swollen-arched and blessed with fantastic details like the vents behind the front wheels and that trick diffuser at the rear. The 17in rims look a little small, but I’d rather that than showy marketing-department-spec 18s. The car isn’t that big, after all… The door shuts with a thud and, looking around, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe it is that big. Compared with a 182, it’s huge. Not Golf ginormous (i.e. with enough headroom for even a Big Brother contestant), but you can’t help but subconsciously compare it with that class of car. Fortunately, quality has taken an equally big leap and the Clio doesn’t suffer too badly from the comparison. The interior is neatly styled and, although the plastics are a bit hard in places, there’s an overall aura of integrity. And in striking contrast with a 182, there’s not a squeak or rattle to distract your ears from that rev-hungry four-pot, either. The driving position is massively improved. You sit higher relative to the road, but much more in line with the steering wheel and lower in the car itself. The standard seats are deeply sculpted and there’s plenty of lateral support, but should you want the full racer look you’ll be able to opt for more extreme Recaros complete with holes ready to accommodate four-point harnesses. With a reach- and rake-adjustable steering column, you can tailor the car much more to your liking. The wheel itself feels great, thick-rimmed and with a bit of give when you grip it (the inspiration was the BMW M3’s chunky soft-touch wheel). There’s no key, just a card that you can keep in your pocket and a starter button on the centre console. The 2-litre four thrums quickly to life and has a nice bassy idle. It sounds smoother than owners of a 182 might expect, a trait that continues right up to the 7500rpm red line. With 197bhp to pull 1240kg, the power-to-weight ratio is actually fractionally lower than the old car (161bhp per ton versus 165 for the standard 182), and at low revs you can feel it labouring despite the shorter gearing made possible by the fitment of a six-speed ’box. Clearly the 197 is a car you need to work hard to get the best from. The gearshift is tight, short and more precise than the old five-speeder, which encourages you to stay committed to the red line. Keep the engine singing its sweet howl and it feels appreciably faster than the old car, its weight offset by the freer-breathing engine, those manic ratios working to good effect. First impressions suggest that the 197 still has that spark that made the 182 so exciting. Renaultsport has retuned the electric power-steering system to give the 197 more feel than the lesser new Clios, and to a large extent it’s been successful. It feels a little light and artificial at first, especially to very small inputs, but as you get into the corner the steering weights up as the sidewalls take the strain, and you sense where the grip levels lie pretty quickly. It wants to self-centre a little too keenly for my tastes, and it’s hardly loaded with feedback, but the rack is quick and accurate. There’s plenty of front grip. Masses, in fact. Composure by the bucketload, too. Hit the brakes and the big four-pot Brembos up front bite hard, but the car stays flat and doesn’t deviate from its line; turn in to a corner on the brakes and the Clio mops up your mistakes and carves a clean line through the bend; back-off mid-corner and the rear unloads, even jinks slightly wide, but never threatens to overtake the front. The ride is loping, supple, but still keeps you in touch with the surface. As your confidence swells and your eyes grow ever wider, the pace just keeps on ramping-up. Body-roll is negligible, the 197 snapping between direction changes cleanly. What you don’t get is that feeling that the outside rear wheel is digging into the surface to fight understeer. That delicious sense that the inside rear wheel is hanging limp in its wheelarch while the outside tyre is smeared into the road. It makes the 197 feel more nose-led in its balance, but in truth this isn’t actually the case. Once you’re really committed, the Clio is actually very throttle-sensitive through a corner. First you need to really load-up the front tyres, then simply shut the throttle, wait for the rear tyres to slip wide and then pin the throttle open again to pull the 197 out of the slide. It’s easy, almost losing and then recovering grip in slow motion. Later, on the Braga circuit, it’s fantastically indulgent, allowing massive sideways shenanigans without ever feeling like it’s waiting to bite. And on the road you can be more accurate, trimming your line through quick corners and getting the 197 up on its toes just like you would a 182 Cup or Trophy. Once you’re in the groove, the 197 is an awesome proposition. If Porsche ever did a hot hatch, it would feel like this – searing engine, supple, adjustable chassis and brakes that never give up. It moves the game on from the 182 in virtually every respect. My only concern is that you need to be going really hard for the 197 to shed its clinical efficiency and really start to deliver visceral thrills. Perhaps the root of the problem is that you no longer get that compelling big engine/little car feeling. The balance of grip to grunt has clearly swung in favour of the former, and the inescapable truth is that a degree of intimacy has been lost as the dimensions have grown. It’s still a great drive, a true cutting-edge hot hatch. I just need a bit of time to mourn the passing of the last lightweight performance bargain before declaring a new king.
|Engine||In-line 4-cyl, 1998cc, 16v|
|Max power||197bhp @ 7250rpm|
|Max torque||159lb ft @ 5550rpm|
|Top speed||134mph (claimed)|
|On sale||July 2006|